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Jamal Crawford’s Historic Sixth Man Transformation

Jamal Crawford changed his path from empty scorer to vital bench cog, writes Michael Scotto.

Michael Scotto

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Jamal Crawford changed the narrative of his career: From a starter on bad teams to arguably the league’s best sixth man ever on good teams.

Crawford spent the first nine seasons of his career with the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors while accumulating a 226-485 (.318) overall record.

The Bulls were in a rebuilding phase at the time. Phil Jackson was out as coach and stars Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman left following three consecutive championship seasons from 1996-98.

Chicago then dealt Crawford to New York with Jerome Williams in exchange for Dikembe Mutombo, Othella Harrington, Frank Williams and Cezary Trybanski. During Crawford’s time in New York, the Knicks were in the midst of the Stephon Marbury era. They traded for his Bulls teammate Eddy Curry, paired Marbury with Steve Francis in the backcourt and traded for Zach Randolph. The coaching carousel included Lenny Wilkins, Herb Williams, Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas and the start of the Mike D’Antoni era.

Crawford was traded to the Warriors in exchange for Al Harrington after the Knicks got off to a 6-5 start during the 2008-09 season.

Crawford and former Knicks forward Zach Randolph both have discussed what could have been in New York had the team not traded both players to make a free agency run at LeBron James and other stars in the summer of 2010.

“It was just tough because, at that time, me and Zach were both averaging 20, it was the best start in the last 10 years at that point in the season for the Knicks,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “But, I get it. [The] 2010 free agency class was coming up and me and Zach made the most. We had guys like LeBron, Joe Johnson, D-Wade, all those guys were going to be free agents, you have to give yourself a chance with those guys, so I get it. But yeah, me and Zach have had that conversation a time or two.”

The Knicks ultimately landed Amar’e Stoudemire in the summer of 2010.

After being traded from the Knicks, Crawford played 54 games for the Warriors. Crawford was then traded to the Atlanta Hawks for Speedy Claxton and Acie Law after the season.

Crawford became a full-time sixth man in his 10th season, which was his first season with the Hawks.

“It was different because I had never done it before, to be honest with you, but I was going into my ninth year or something like that, and it got to the point where I was tired of being known as just a good player on bad teams,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “I was like, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes.’ Fast forward, I go to Atlanta, they kind of had their core guys in place. I’m like, ‘Alright, whatever,’ so I knew, going into the summer, getting traded there, I was going to come off the bench.

“But it was still different. It was still weird. Then, after the first game, I took like two shots and was like,’I feel weak, this isn’t me,’ and Mike Woodson, who’s coaching me now [as an assistant coach with the Clippers], was like, ‘I want you to lead the league in scoring off the bench.’ I was like, ‘Okay,’ so I became more aggressive and then won Sixth Man of the Year and I saw the importance of having somebody like that off the bench, a guy who averages 20 points coming off the bench – that’s a decent boost. If you look back to [Manu] Ginobili and Jason Terry in Dallas and James Harden in OKC, all the elite teams usually have a guy who is really, really good off the bench, so it made sense.”

Crawford won his first Sixth Man of the Year award that season as he made his first individual trip to the playoffs with the Hawks. Crawford averaged 18 points per game on 45 percent shooting from the field and 38 percent from beyond the arc that season.

After a two-year stint in Atlanta where Crawford made back-to-back playoff trips with the Hawks, he signed with the Portland Trail Blazers as a free agent. Atlanta finished 97-67 (.591) during Crawford’s stint. Crawford and the Trail Blazers missed the playoffs in his lone season with Portland.

Crawford then signed as a free agent the following summer with the Los Angeles Clippers and continued on his path to becoming the most decorated sixth man in league history.

Individually, Crawford won Sixth Man of the Year awards in 2014 and 2016, while the Clippers made four consecutive trips to the playoffs entering this season. The Clippers had a combined 222-106 (.677) record during those four seasons.

Crawford has won two of his Sixth Man of the Year awards playing for Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. Fittingly, after coaching Crawford when he won his first award with the Hawks, Mike Woodson has also been on the Clippers’ coaching staff as an assistant since 2014.

“He plays all summer, he loves the game, and he’s a professional scorer,” Rivers said. “He’s just good at it, he has a knack for it. He doesn’t have one certain shot, he’ll take any shot – literally. And that’s okay. I mean, for me, from a coaching standpoint, I allow him, and I think that’s important. The moment I tell him ‘bad shot’ I’d probably screw him up.”

Entering this season as the only player in league history to win three Sixth Man of the Year awards, I asked Crawford if that distinction makes him the best sixth man ever?

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Crawford replied smiling. “I’m so in the moment of just playing in my career. I think you would have to go back, but there have been some great ones. Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce, Detlef Schrempf, Microwave [Vinnie Johnson], there have been so many guys who were so good, and the guys I said [referencing Harden, Terry and Ginobili]. We owe those guys, so I don’t know.”

Crawford will have time to add to his legacy. Crawford told Basketball Insiders he would like to play for another five years if possible. When he retires, he hopes to land a front office job.

For now, however, Crawford is living in the moment and focused on helping the Clippers reach their potential and challenge the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers for the championship this season.

“I feel like when we’re the best version of ourselves, we can play with anybody,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “I really believe that, and obviously there are some good teams out there and they probably say the same thing, but for us, we’re just worried about what we can control, and we feel like, if we can really put this together, we can be as good as we want to be.”

The Clippers have built the best version of themselves with the team’s deepest bench in recent memory led by Crawford, Marreese Speights, Austin Rivers, Raymond Felton, Brandon Bass, Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson and Alan Anderson.

If the Clippers are going to realize their full potential and challenge the Warriors and Cavaliers, the bench will be the determining x-factor as Crawford continues to change his own personal narrative from a starter on bad teams to an elite sixth man on good teams.

In his 17th season in the league, Crawford can add to his narrative even further by becoming the league’s Sixth Man of the Year for an unprecedented fourth time on a Clippers team that could win a championship.

Michael Scotto is a Senior NBA Writer for Basketball Insiders in his sixth season covering the league. He also works for The Associated Press focusing on Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks game coverage.

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NBA AM: LeBron James’ Quest For Eighth Straight Finals

Despite playing 30 minutes in preseason, LeBron James dazzled in the season opener with an impressive stat line.

Lang Greene

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Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star forward LeBron James has been known for his durability ever since entering the league in 2003. Despite a heavy annual workload, James has played less than 70 games just twice in 14 seasons. One of those campaigns was the strike-shortened 2012 season, in which in he appeared in 62 out of 66 contests.

Heading into the season opener on Tuesday, there were concerns that James wouldn’t be able to lace them up due to an ankle injury suffered during a preseason in which he logged only 30 minutes. However, James not only suited up, he was the primary driving force in the team’s 102-99 victory over the Boston Celtics.

James finished the contest with 29 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists on 12-for-19 shooting from the floor. Yet, after the game, James was transparent about his physical conditioning – or lack thereof.

“I’m out of shape, very out of shape for my expectations,” James told the press after the Cavaliers’ defeated the Celtics in Tuesday’s season opener. “Rightfully so. I haven’t been able to play during the preseason. I played one game [and] reinjured my ankle. I don’t like where I’m at right now.”

James has a reputation for going to extreme lengths to keep his body in tip-top shape, but Tuesday night’s performance didn’t appear to be the work of a man struggling to keep up.

While the Golden State Warriors are the favorites to once again hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at season’s end, the Cavaliers are expected to make their fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals.

But Cleveland has plenty of question marks to start the season.

The Cavaliers are still integrating former league MVP Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Jeff Green into the rotation. Two starters from previous seasons, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, are now adjusting to roles off the bench and presumably reduced minutes. This doesn’t even take into consideration the impending unrestricted free agency status of James, Rose and Thomas next summer, which will become a daily outlet of speculation.

James acknowledged the team is still adjusting on the fly and building chemistry where possible.

“The most important thing is we got the win,” James said. “It’s going to be a learning experience for us because we got seven new guys, putting in a new system and every game is going to be a learning experience.”

James has been able to avoid serious injury throughout his career and the preseason ankle injury appears to be a thing of the past.

“It’s a little sore,” James said about his tweaked ankle. “But I’d figured that much.

“We don’t play again until Friday, so I get a couple of days. But I have to get some conditioning in as well. So it’s going to be a fine line for me—rest my ankle trying to get in healthy or do I continue to get some conditioning in because I need it? We have a great support staff and I’ll be fine.”

Other Opening Night Observations

Boston Celtics (99) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (102)

  • Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, one of the team’s marquee offseason acquisitions, suffered a fractured ankle early in the first quarter
  • Celtics forwards Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum combined for 39 points and 16 rebounds
  • Celtics guard Kyrie Irving recorded 10 assists in his Boston debut. Last season with the Cavaliers he posted just eight games of 10+ assists
  • Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson played 20 minutes off the bench. Last season the forward averaged 29.9 minutes per contest

Houston Rockets (122) vs. Golden State Warriors (121)

  • The Rockets outscored the Warriors 34-20 in the fourth quarter to stole a victory at Oracle Arena on ring ceremony night
  • Rockets role players P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon combined for 44 points on 15-for-25 shooting from the floor in the victory
  • Rockets guard Chris Paul recorded 11 assists in his debut, but shot just 2-for-9 from the floor and totaled four points
  • Warriors forward Draymond Green left the game in the second half due to a knee sprain. At the time of his departure, Green had posted nine points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists
  • Veteran guard Nick Young led the Warriors in scoring with 23 points on 6-for-7 shooting from three-point range in the opener

The gross majority of the league’s teams will open up their seasons on Wednesday, and by Friday, everyone will have played one game.

In it all, though, from here, it still appears that LeBron James is king.

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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